Internationally known astrophysicist and author Dr. Mario Livio discusses Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution during a recent talk on his book “Brilliant Blunders” which debuts May 14.
In the first lecture on his new book “Brilliant Blunders,” Dr. Mario Livio discussed how making mistakes and taking risks leads to major discoveries in science and other disciplines.  

“If it were not for blunders we would be going down too many wrong avenues for too long,” Livio said during his talk last week at Black Hills State University. Livio’s presentation was sponsored by the Madeline Young Speaker Series.

Livio is a senior astrophysicist at the Hubble Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore. He joined the Institute in 1991 as head of the Archive Branch, and also served as the head of the Institute’s Science Division. He has published more than 400 scientific papers and five books that also mix his interest in art.

Livio’s book, which will debut May 14, discusses serious mistakes made by scientific giants including Charles Darwin, Linus Pauling, and Albert Einstein, and how their mistakes led to breakthroughs in the area of evolution

Livio noted the importance of mistakes in the advancement of science as well as other disciplines. “You need to be able to take some calculated risks. If you always do what is certain, you will get no breakthroughs you will just do incremental progress. Breakthroughs come from the fact that people occasionally blunder.”

Darwin established that all species become extinct and the species we see today are actually the descendants of species that existed before, and that the key mechanism to this evolution is natural selection. Natural selection is that the idea that not all things are exactly equal but some things have some inheritable advantage in terms of survival.

“This was Darwin’s theory and it worked beautifully. It explained essentially everything there is,” Livio said. “What Darwin didn’t know was genetics.”

He adopted the prevailing theory that genetics was like the mixing of paints, the father and mother have characteristics and those get mixed in children like paint. “That fact that he believed in it was not the blunder. It was that with this theory of genetics natural selection would have never worked.”

Darwin understood it was a problem and didn’t know exactly how to solve it, but began thinking in the right direction, Livio said. In 1866, he hit a realization - if everything was blended like paint, then how can a female and a male always produce a female and a male and not some hermaphrodite.

“Darwin’s blunder actually led to this understanding (of genetics),” he said.

Livio continued his discussion of scientific blunders with Pauling and his mistake which eventually led to the double-helix model for DNA.  Pauling came up with the model for proteins called the alpha helix. “He wanted to explain how certain proteins were built, and in 1948 he started drawing diagrams and started to construct a three dimensional structure of proteins.”

Using the structure of chemistry, Pauling came up with the alpha helix – a common structure of proteins, characterized by a single, spiral chain of amino acids stabilized by hydrogen bonds.

He then decided to try and attack the structure of DNA, Livio said.  DNA is made up of three parts: sugars, phosphates and bases. Pauling developed a triple helix model which could have never worked, Livio said. Each phosphate is negatively charged and so many negative charges forced together would repel each other driving the structure apart.

“What I tried to do in this book is get into the minds of these scientists – what was going in Pauling’s mind. How could he come up with a model like this,” Livio said noting that Pauling, one of the greatest chemists, overlooked the basic rules of chemistry.

However, James Watson and Francis Crick used Pauling’s methods to discover the double helix structure of DNA.

The final scientist Livio discussed was Albert Einstein and his theory of general relativity. Einstein said gravity is a property of space and time. In his equation, he added a term to keep the universe from collapsing under its own weight. He later took the term out after learning the universe is expanding and not static, as was previously thought.

“In 1998, we discovered the expansion of our universe is actually accelerating and speeding up,” Livio said. “Do you know what is speeding it up? That term that Einstein took out. So his mistake was not putting the term in, it was taking it out. He could’ve predicted the expansion of our universe was going to accelerate.”